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American Kestrel 

(Falco sparverius)
Banded December 31, 1999 - Indiana

General Information

The colorful American Kestrel, also known as the Sparrow Hawk, killy hawk, or windhover, is the smallest and most common North American falcon. Its range extends from Alaska and Canada southward through the Americas to Tierra del Fuego. Some are migratory, but some pairs will remain and defend a wintering territory. Kestrels withdraw from their northern most breeding range in the winter. The American Kestrel is closely related to the European Kestrel. 

If you see a small falcon that appears to be hovering on rapid wing beats over a field or an interstate median, this is most likely the bird. 

 

The Kestrel is 9-12 inches long, with a wingspan of 20-24.5 inches. Weights range from 3 to 4 ounces, with females slightly larger than males. Kestrels have been clocked at speeds of nearly 40 mph. 

Handling this bird is John Schaust, an experienced raptor rehabilitator, and Park Manager and Naturalist for Holiday Park in Indianapolis. 

John Schaust with American Kestrel
Figure 1 - John Schaust with American Kestrel

 

American Kestrel Male
Figure 2 - American Kestrel Male

 

The male Kestrel is a beautiful bird, a fact not usually appreciated when the birds is seen as a dark silhouette against a bright sky. The long, slender, pointed wings are blue-gray, and the back and tail are rufous red. A broad, black band extends across the terminal end of the tail, and a white band extends across the tip of the tail.

The vertical black pattern on a white face give the Kestrel the look of having sideburns. Man is the greatest enemy of the Kestrel. Many are shot, others are killed by house cats, by flying into windows, and by getting hit by cars. These fatalities are unfortunate, as these birds provide us a great service by consuming large numbers of destructive rodents and insect pests.

American Kestrel
Figure 3 - American Kestrel

 

American Kestrel
Figure 4 - American Kestrel

The eyes of the Kestrel face somewhat forward, providing the bird great depth perception and enabling it to prey on its favorite foods of mice, voles, small birds, lizards, grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects. The Kestrel's eyes are far superior to our human eye. They are sensitive to light in the near ultra-violet spectrum, and allow the bird to see the urine stained trail of a rodent on the grass. The high density of cone receptors allow the bird to see small details at greater distances.

 

The upper wing of the male Kestrel is blue-gray with white spotting. When viewed from below, the white spots along the trailing edge of the wing of both males and females are visible as a translucent line of spots.

Upper Wing of Male Kestrel
Figure 5 - Upper Wing of Male Kestrel

 

Female Wing
Figure 6 - Female Wing

 

The wing of the female Kestrel is brown wing with many white spots.

Adult males have a rufous chest with little or no spotting or barring.

Breast of Adult Male
Figure 7 - Breast of Adult Male

 

Breast of Young Male
Figure 8 - Breast of Young Male

 

Immature males have less rufous, and show barring and spotting in the chest.

The age of the female American Kestrel can be determined by the width of the black subterminal band. In mature birds, the black subterminal band is twice as wide as the other black bands on the tail. In immature birds, the subterminal black band is less than twice as wide as the other black bands.

Tail of Mature Female Kestrel
Figure 9 - Tail of Mature Female Kestrel

 

Nesting Behavior

Kestrels are cavity nesters, preferring a natural cavity, a woodpecker hole, or crevice in a tree. Suitable artificial nest boxes are also used. From 3 to 7 eggs are incubated primarily by the female for up to 30 days. During this time, the male brings food to the female, who then feeds the hatchlings. At 20 days, when the young are able to feed themselves in the nest, both parents hunt food.

Young leave the nest in about 30 days.

Banding Recoveries

The Bird Banding Lab web site reports that between 1955 and 1998, 202,708 American Kestrels were banded. Of these, 3,647 have been recovered, a recovery rate of 1.79%.

Banding studies show that some American Kestrels are migratory, but others defend a winter territory. They can live up to 6 years in the wild, but most suffer a fatality in the second year of life, usually in the fall. In captivity, Kestrels have lived from 14 to 17 years.

If you should recover a banded bird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Conservation

Kestrel populations appear to be increasing across most of the US. Kestrels provide a valuable service by consuming many destructive rodents and insect pests. As attractive members of the falcon family, they are an interesting and aesthetically pleasing component of our natural world, especially to those who take the time to enjoy their antics.

The shortage of natural cavities for nesting may limit their population size. If you live in an area where Kestrels occur, consider adding a Kestrel nest box to your property.

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